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The Four Masters

by Michael Mullen

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In an Irish monastic settlement in 1632 the son and daughter of a Donegal sea captain befriend four scholars struggling against all odds to write a history of Ireland.

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Fiona and Fergus O'Donnell, the children of a Donegal sea captain, witness the creation of The Annals of the Four Masters in this work of historical fiction for young readers. Opening in 1632, a few decades into the Plantation of Ulster - the colonization of northern Ireland by settlers from Scotland and England, begun in 1606 - the story follows the struggle to create a comprehensive history of Ireland up until that point, thereby saving the knowledge contained in many crumbling and endangered medieval manuscripts, while also recording and preserving a history now in danger of being erased by foreign conquest. The children, good friends with the Franciscan friars who have come to live in a rustic settlement on the Drowes River, near their home, are excited to learn of this project, which is being undertaken by the famed Michael O'Cleary (Mícheál Ó Cléirigh), a Franciscan monk and celebrated scholar who has assembled rare manuscripts from all corners of Ireland. Working with Brother Michael are the poet Fearfeasa O'Mulconry, and the historians Peregrine Duignan and Peregrine O'Cleary - together, they are the Four Masters for whom the annals are named - as well as Fiona and Fergus, who assist the scholars with the mundane and menial tasks. But although all participants are eager for the work, difficulties arise, from the need to travel to Derry - a stronghold of English power - for a manuscript, to the dangers posed by Captain Staker Wallace, a vicious English Army officer intent on revenging himself on the monks, and on Fiona and Fergus's father, who regularly smuggled Irish rebels across the sea to mainland Europe...

Although I have heard of The Annals of the Four Masters before - they are a key source for medieval Irish history - this short historical novel for children is the first time I have seen them mentioned in anything other than an academic work. I love the idea of writing a story about the creation of this important text - indeed, about the creation of any manuscript, and about the role of textual transmission in the creation of history - and find the time period in which The Four Masters is set to be a fascinating, albeit tragic one. That said, although I did enjoy the story, I had a few issues with Mullen's work, that prevented me from taking it completely to heart, as I might otherwise have done. First, I sometimes found the tone a little bit too... bombastic is a little harsh, but heroically nationalistic, perhaps? I had no trouble with the realistic depiction of the oppression brought to bear on the indigenous Irish people and culture, by English and Scots colonizers - in fact, save for one memorable scene in Derry, I found this a fairly tame account of the horrors of the times - but did grow a little tired of being reminded how important the creation of the annals was, and how glorious the history it documented. "You do not know how glorious and sad our history is," the children's mother tells them toward the beginning of the book, and one feels as if this point is being continually reemphasized. My second issue was with the naming of the villain of the piece, which has caused me no little confusion, and might in fact mislead young readers. Much like the Four Masters, who were historical figures, there was, in fact, a Staker Wallace (sometimes Wallis) in Irish history. He was born in the 1730s, was a notable Irish rebel, and was murdered by a pro-English aristocrat. Apparently there is a folk-song about him, although I have not as of yet) heard it. Given that all of this is true, I find it mystifying that Mullen chose the name he did for his villainous English officer. Staker Wallace, after all, is hardly a common name... However that may be, despite these qualms, overall I recommend The Four Masters, which presents a fairly engaging read, about an important, and often under-represented event (and book) in Irish history. ( )
  AbigailAdams26 | Jul 22, 2015 |
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In an Irish monastic settlement in 1632 the son and daughter of a Donegal sea captain befriend four scholars struggling against all odds to write a history of Ireland.

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A brilliant account of Ireland's past by one of the country's finest historical novelists. In 1632, in a Franciscan monastery on the border between Donegal and Leitrim, four dedicated scholars recorded the history of Ireland from earliest times to the present. These four became known as the Four Masters. Their work, The Annals of the Four Masters, is one of the greatest sources of Irish history.
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Poolbeg Press

An edition of this book was published by Poolbeg Press.

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